Songs of Survival

Dressed as a black cat, Ela Stein Weissberger sang proudly from a European stage. In the audience were esteemed poets, artists, and musicians, and on stage with Weissberger were dozens of other young singers. The cast performed the fanciful story of a brother and sister who, with help from their friends and three enchanted animals, overcome a tyrannical organ grinder who bans them from singing in the town square to raise money for their sick mother. Good triumphs over evil, and the opera concludes with a victory tune.

That opera, Brundibar, is a light, uplifting fairy tale. Its dark undercurrent isn’t in the content, but the context: Written by Czech composer Hans Krasa, Brundibar premiered at Terezin, a concentration camp near Prague. In light of the atrocities of World War II, the whimsical show became a compelling statement against oppression, a testament to the powers of hope and community.

Of the 140,000 people who passed through Terezin, most, including Krasa, eventually were deported to a near-certain death at camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. An estimated 90 percent of Terezin’s children perished during the war. 

But Weissberger lived, and this spring, she’ll travel to Evansville for a local production of Brundibar. On April 16 at the Victory Theatre, a cast of around 40 local students, ranging from tiny second-graders to talented teens, will reprise the performance introduced to Evansville six years ago.

In 2005, the local nonprofit organization CYPRESS (Committee to Promote Respect in Schools) spearheaded an effort to bring the production — and Weissberger — to Evansville. The effects were long-lasting: Amy Walker, executive director of the Public Education Foundation and producer of 2011’s Brundibar performance, was captivated by “the simplicity of it,” she says, “yet the ability for children to get across such a strong message.” Carol Abrams, chair of CYPRESS, received a letter from a cast member’s mother: “Little did we know the impact it would have on our lives,” the letter read. “…What a wonderful lesson in humanitarianism.”

After the 2005 production, the committee decided, “We have got to do this again,” recalls Walker, who also has co-produced 18 PEF/EVSC summer musicals. This year, the opera is directed by retired Castle High School teacher Ellen Cerling and conducted by Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra music director Alfred Savia. Terry Becker, head of the fine and performing arts department at Signature School, serves as vocal coach.

New additions are a simpler set and costumes that are “more along the lines of how it originally was done,” Walker says. Before the show, the Eykamp String Quartet will perform Olivier Messiaen’s haunting Quartet for the End of Time. After the performance, audience members are invited to a free dessert reception throughout the theater.

Once again, Weissberger will share her experiences with Brundibar patrons. Now 80 years old, she’s one of a few survivors from the original cast, and “there’s a sense of urgency,” says Walker. “None of the Holocaust survivors will be around forever, and (the lessons) are more powerful in person.”

For tickets to the public performance of Brundibar, 7:30 p.m. April 16 at the Victory Theatre, call 812-425-5050. For more information, see our Guide.

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